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REVIEW: THE EXPANSE RETURNS WITH A BRILLIANT FIFTH SEASON
(THE EXPANSE streams on Amazon Prime Video starting December 16th with a three-part premiere and weekly episodes after that.)
A welcome return
Canceled, salvaged, and now returning for its penultimate season before the end, THE EXPANSE is an underdog story worthy of its heroes. Finally finding a home at Amazon Prime, the beloved, but sadly never fully mainstream, series saw itself settling into new digs last year, filled with growing pains. Now, with the new beginning of its third trilogy out of the way, season five kicks into high gear right from the pilot.
A year after discovering the interdimensional gateway to a new world, our solar system is more troubled than ever. As the gold rush for new land continues, Earth, Mars, and the Belt are stuck in a fever pitch over dominion. The arrival of a rogue state, The Free Navy, lead by Marco Inaros, threatens all-out war between all factions, and soon events are put into motion after which the universe will never be the same.
Meanwhile, the Rocinante crew has split apart, each going their separate ways to wrap up affairs for the time being. Holden works with Fred Johnson on Tycho station, Naomi chases the ghost of her son, Alex and Bobby return to Mars, and Amos finds himself on Earth picking up the pieces of a life he so thoroughly once broke. Avarsarala, once the queen of all dominion, simmers in a figurehead position on Luna, sensing trouble where others only find complacency.
Into the abyss
What THE EXPANSE does so well, and excels even further this season, is continuity. Everything in Season 5 has to do with the past catching up to us. Whether that’s abandoned families, derelict duties, or broken promises, nobody forgets in the galaxy. They just take their time to find you through the blackness.
Each previous season of the series has investigated and ruminated on different aspects of society. From poverty to genocide and slavery to colonialism, there isn’t a segment of humanity the series has shied away from. Even in the vastness of space, it always finds a way to shine a light on our own failings. Now, as time has passed, it focuses more directly on the lead characters and the sins of the fathers that come to haunt them.
If you’re only just joining the series, take the time to start from the beginning. THE EXPANSE thrives on long-form storytelling, and the characters feel even better five seasons in than they have before. Every action feels motivated by something more significant, and each comeuppance, earned or not, has a basis in something we’ve seen before. It’s a massively long game that show runners Naren Shankar, Mark Fergus, and Hark Otsby are playing, and we’re now reaching the victory lap.
A dream ensemble
Propelled by an exquisite cast, THE EXPANSE feels like returning to old friends. It’s an ensemble in the best possible way, where every member of the crew supports the other. Even apart, as they spend much of the season, the terrific pacing makes their stories feel intertwined as each character, at some point, gazes into the vastness, wondering where their friends are.
As Holden, Steven Strait has grown into a terrific leading man, carrying the righteousness and often needless burden of the universe on his shoulders. More self-aware this season, Strait finds a hidden smile in the corner of his mouth we didn’t register before, and his back-and-forth with Fred Johnson (Chad L.Coleman, fantastic) is hilarious. “I saw a button, and I pushed it,” Holden bluntly declares. “That’s how go you through life?!” Johnson asks, incredulously.
As Naomi, Dominique Tipper has the meatiest part of the bunch, and she delivers a compelling and touching performance once again. Confronted with her past up close and in person, Naomi has to accept some hard truths of the world she helped create and what it may have cost when she ran from it. Tipper gets an entire episode all to herself and goes to town in an impressive act that seals her as one of the queens of sci-fi.
On Earth, Wes Chatham and the luminous Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Amos and Avarsarala, spend most of the season on their own, with Chatham getting the limelight at long last. We learn more about Amos this season than any previous one, and Chatham explores the complicated and tragic character beautifully. Amos was always something better than just the wisecracking muscle, and it’s here that Chatham gets to finally prove it.
Queens of Sci-Fi
Aghdashloo, always radiant and effortlessly charming, is as great as ever in her role. Avarsarala is at her best when tilting against the windmills, and none are greater than the enemies she faces this year. Delivering rapid-fire insults like a drunken sailor on shore leave, few can withstand her fury even now, except for Amos, which creates some of the funniest and oddly endearing moments of the season.
Returning faces Cara Gee, Frankie Adams, and Nadine Nicole are equally memorable. Gee, like the rest of us, feels the loss of Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn), and her conflicted loyalties are tearing her apart. Eminently watchable, Gee simmers through much of the season, but once she’s unleashed, it promises thrilling consequences for every episode that follows.
Bobby Draper is still the straight man in the team, but it’s Adams’ droll deadpanning and inherently charming personality that steal the show once again.
Opera writ large
It’s a testament to the crackling writing and plotting, much of which follows the books surprisingly closely, that such a sprawling cast and story never feels overwhelming. After four seasons of impeccably built geography, the world of THE EXPANSE makes sense both emotionally and logically. We know the rules because we’ve spent so long getting them right, and now when the going gets tough, it’s just a case of holding on.
And boy, does it. The first four episodes of the season are possibly the most consequential the series has seen since the discovery of Julie Mao. For a story that has pushed the scope and scale of space opera with every season, returning to our star system should feel like a step back. Instead, THE EXPANSE understands that all grand opera is inherently human, and it paints great tragedy and triumphs on a massive canvas.
With the announcement that THE EXPANSE will come to a close already next year, it’s a bittersweet time to be a fan. This is as good as TV sci-fi gets, and there’s nothing quite like it on the air. In a landmark year, where shows like PERRY MASON and LOVECRAFT COUNTRY have pushed television even further into prestige territory, THE EXPANSE continues to carve itself a place in the hall of fame.
Like other great pop-culture greats, it uses tried and tested tropes to tell a timeless story about humanity, and in doing so injects the genre with fresh blood it was sorely lacking. After five brilliant seasons, it feels like THE EXPANSE could just continue forever. But knowing the end is near makes all this feel that much more precious. I doubt we’ll get anything this good again, at least until they adapt the final three books.